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Ben Bernanke: The audacious pragmatist

What the Bernanke Fed did after the 2008 crisis may prove to have more enduring influence than what was done during it
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First Published: Mon, Aug 26 2013. 12 43 AM IST
US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Photo: Mary F. Calvert/The New York Times
US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Photo: Mary F. Calvert/The New York Times
Updated: Mon, Aug 26 2013. 01 39 AM IST
Shortly before Ben S. Bernanke was nominated as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 2005, he paid a return visit to Stanford, where he started his academic career in 1979. In a speech, he recalled that he and his wife, Anna, had rented a house with friends because he was certain that local real estate prices would fall. Instead, prices in the Bay Area doubled, then doubled again.
“Since then,” Bernanke told his audience, “I’ve developed a view that central bankers should not try to determine fundamental values of assets.”
Indeed, Bernanke’s academic work, largely at Princeton, helped shape the conventional wisdom that central banks couldn’t spot asset bubbles and shouldn’t try to pop things that looked like bubbles. In his first speech as a Federal governor in 2002, he reiterated that trying to judge the sustainability of rapid increases in housing or stock prices was “neither desirable nor feasible.”
Over the next several years, he said repeatedly that he saw no clear evidence of a housing bubble. And in 2004, the Bernankes paid a hefty $839,000 for a town house on Capitol Hill in Washington.
It took a great recession to change his mind. The recession, prompted by the collapse of the housing bubble that Bernanke—and most other experts—failed to see coming, ended an era of minimalism in central banking. And there is no better marker than the views of Bernanke, the world’s most influential central banker, who now argues that the Fed needs to consider a range of previously unthinkable actions, including trying to pop bubbles when necessary, because sometimes the cost of doing nothing is worse.
Bernanke, who plans to step down in January after eight years as Fed chairman, will be remembered for helping to arrest the collapse of the financial system in 2008. This shy, methodical economist who had been expected to serve as the keeper of Alan Greenspan’s flame— to preserve the Fed’s hard-won success in moderating inflation — emerged under pressure as perhaps the most innovative and daring leader in the Fed’s history.
But what Bernanke did after the crisis may prove to have even more enduring influence. For almost three decades, the Fed focused on moderating inflation in the belief that this was the best and only way to help the economy. In the wake of the crisis, Bernanke forged a broader vision of the Fed’s responsibilities, starting experimental, incomplete campaigns to reduce unemployment and to prevent future crises.
The Bernanke Fed has failed to fully achieve its goals. Growth is still tepid, unemployment still too high, inflation still too low. Some critics continue to warn—so far, incorrectly—that its efforts will unleash inflation or destabilize financial markets.
Yet many of the Fed’s experiments are already being emulated by other central banks. And Bernanke’s many admirers say it is hard to imagine that anyone else could have done more under the circumstances to restore the economy. Fortunately, they say, his lifelong study of central banking under stress meant that he not only knew the available options but also understood that those options weren’t enough. And he had the credibility necessary to persuade a hidebound institution to change quickly.
“It’s hard to say that the Fed has accomplished what could have or should have been accomplished,” said Michael Woodford, an economist at Columbia University. “Yet in the context of the difficulty of the challenges, the likelihood is that few other central bankers could have been as bold as Ben has been.”
Constrained by reality
There was a time when Bernanke seemed to know exactly how a central bank should jolt a country out of an economic malaise.
In a swaggering 1999 paper, he accused Japan’s central bank of lacking the will to take obvious steps to revive that nation’s economy. One prescription, which earned him the nickname “Helicopter Ben,” was that the Bank of Japan should agree to offset a large tax cut by buying an equivalent amount of government debt, a strategy that Bernanke compared to a “helicopter drop of newly printed money.”
The point, which he repeated at his first meeting of the Fed’s policymaking committee in 2002, was that central banks had plenty of ways to stimulate growth even after flooring the gas by cutting short-term rates to zero.
“I’m not one who worries about zero bounds,” Bernanke declared.
Yet in the five years since the Bernanke Fed hit that zero bound in December 2008, it has not taken the drastic steps that Bernanke recommended to Japan. Instead, it has relied on two of what Bernanke once described as the least potent options available to a central bank: declaring that the Fed intends to keep short-term rates near zero until unemployment declines, and “quantitative easing”—buying large quantities of treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities to accelerate job growth.
“During the crisis, it was clear that they were pulling out all of the stops to try to find a solution, and once the financial system stabilized and the problem was merely 10% unemployment, then they moved more slowly,” said Laurence Ball, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, who wrote in a 2012 paper that Bernanke has lacked the courage of his convictions.
Bernanke has said that critics misunderstand the context of his writings. He was arguing that central banks always have the power to prevent deflation, as the Fed has done in recent years. He did not initially embrace the idea that the Fed should act with comparable force to spur job creation. That case was made by others, including Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, who called for officials to act as if their hair were on fire.
But even as he grew increasingly concerned about unemployment and pressed for stronger action, friends and colleagues say chairman Bernanke found himself constrained in ways that Professor Bernanke did not anticipate and that his academic critics still don’t seem to appreciate: by political realities, internal opposition and a heightened awareness of consequences.
Several of his most potent prescriptions, like the helicopter drop, require the cooperation of fiscal authorities. But Congress in recent years has shown little interest in helping to stimulate the economy. Instead, the Fed’s efforts have been undermined by repeated rounds of federal spending cuts.
“He came in as a brilliant academic—a very smart guy with a very deep background in monetary economics—but it was as an academic,” said Donald Kohn, who served as the Fed’s vice chairman under Bernanke until 2010. “And one of the things that necessarily happens to you when academic theory meets the real world is you become more aware of the limitations of the theory and the models and how you need to operate in the real world that may not function the way your models suggest that it should function.”
Kohn added that, in his view, Bernanke rose to these challenges.
Last autumn, after months of quiet campaigning, Bernanke won support for two experiments that made job creation the clear focus of Fed policy. The Fed announced in September that it would buy $40 billion a month in mortgage bonds until the labour market outlook improved “substantially.” In December, it said it would hold short-term rates near zero at least so long as the jobless rate remained above 6.5%.
Bernanke spoke of the Fed’s “grave concern” about unemployment, a problem that he said should concern every American.
But many of the officials who supported the program did so tentatively, and their growing unease drove the decision for Bernanke to announce in June that the Fed intended to reduce its bond-buying before the end of the year.
Central bank straight talk
On an unusually warm day in January 2012, Bernanke walked into a room filled with reporters, sat down behind a desk dressed with the Fed board of governors seal and announced that the Fed wanted inflation to be about 2% a year— the first time the Fed had detailed its economic objectives so specifically.
It was a moment of his own construction. For two decades, he had been perhaps the foremost proponent of the idea that central banks could increase the power of their actions by speaking clearly about their intentions.
As a member of the board of governors, he argued publicly for the Fed to adopt an inflation target despite the opposition of Greenspan, the powerful chairman, who believed that talking about the future would constrain the Fed’s flexibility.
Greenspan had quickly marginalized other academics sent to the Fed to counterbalance his dominance, but his impending retirement made it necessary to talk about other ways of running the Fed, and Bernanke carefully presented his approach as a method of bottling Greenspan’s magic.
That was merely politic. Bernanke believed that making the Fed more predictable would improve its performance. He wanted it to spend more time operating on autopilot. He wanted to reduce the chairman’s importance.
“The thing I think he’ll be known for, if it lasts, is depersonalizing the institution,” Gertler said. “The idea is that the Fed has a systematic response to the economy. It’s not the hunch of the chairman; it’s communicating to the public clear rules of thumb for monetary policy.”
Yet by the time Bernanke was able to achieve his goal, his purpose had changed. Stabilizing inflation, which he described in his first speech as Fed chairman as the primary goal of monetary policy, no longer seemed enough. Indeed, announcing the target seemed to make it easier for the Fed to suggest that it wouldn’t mind if inflation rose a little above 2% during its campaign to spur job creation.
Paradoxically, by emphasizing communication through innovations like regular news conferences, which he introduced in April 2011, Bernanke in some ways increased the chairman’s role rather than submerging it in the institution. And the emphasis on transparency remains more popular with academics than with policymakers whose roots are in the markets.
Paul A. Volcker, a former Fed chairman, has argued that transparency can encourage investors to become overconfident about the path of policy, resulting in undue risk-taking, basically because people aren’t very good at minding the difference between a forecast and a promise.
When Bernanke sought earlier this year to shake some speculative excess from financial markets by announcing that the Fed intended to reduce the volume of its bond purchases, some argued that he was being forced to fix a problem created by his own communications policy.
“I think transparency in central banking is kind of like truth-telling in everyday life,” Bernanke said in response. “You’ve got to be consistent about it.”
In the weeks after his initial remarks, Bernanke and other Fed officials made the same points over and over again until they felt that they had been heard. If the Fed pulled back later this year, they said, it would be doing so only because it was finally starting to achieve its goals.
I’m sure you’ll miss us
Bernanke told The New York Times in the spring of 2010 that he had accepted a second term as Fed chairman for two reasons.
“First I wanted to see through the process of financial regulatory reform, which will have long-lasting impacts on our economy,” he said. “Second, I felt that I could play a useful role in managing the exit from our extraordinary policies, including our highly accommodative monetary policies.”
As he prepares to step down, the work of regulatory reform is a long way from finished and the Fed’s exit remains entirely in the future.
Nonetheless, Bernanke is already starting to let the weight of the last eight years slip from his shoulders. In June, he delivered a lighthearted baccalaureate address at Princeton, looking more comfortable wearing medieval robes in a Gothic chapel than he has often looked in new suits.
“I wrote recently to inquire about the status of my leave from the university,” he joked, “and the letter I got back began, ‘Regrettably, Princeton receives many more qualified applicants for faculty positions than we can accommodate.’”
In July, Bernanke did not bother suppressing a snort of laughter when a senator, thanking him for his service at what may well have been his last congressional hearing as the Fed chairman, added, “And I’m sure you’ll miss us.” And, this past week, he skipped the annual late-summer gathering of central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he had spoken in each previous year of his chairmanship.
“It really seemed that the burden of dealing with the crisis, just the way he would carry himself when you would see him, it looked like a tremendous weight,” Woodford said of Bernanke.
“And I hope that either because the economy recovers or he can hand off his job to someone else, I’m hoping that he does indeed become much more lighthearted again.”
And who knows? Someday, he might even be able to sell his town house for a profit.
Kitty Bennett contributed in research.
© 2013/The New York Times
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First Published: Mon, Aug 26 2013. 12 43 AM IST